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Topmaking. Part 4

Updated: 3 days ago

Approximately 80% of Australia's Merino wool is used in the worsted manufacturing process to produce yarn for either lightweight cloth or for knitting into fine fabric or knitwear. The intrinsic value of Merino wool is only realized after raw wool is converted industrially via a process known as 'topmaking' into wooltop, which is the usable input commodity for worsted spinning. 'Topmaking' starts with blending, where the skill of the topmaker in mixing wools of different qualities is paramount to optimizing quality as well as price for the spinner's requirements. The disparate components of any batch need to be physically blended before the next stage, which is scouring (or washing). The greasy wool bales are tipped out and pass along a conveyor belt into a series of baths containing water of varying temperatures as well as detergent and soda ash to control acidity. The wool is pushed through the baths by rakes and the scouring solution may also be aerated by suction drums. This agitating action assists the detergent in removing dirt and suint (grease) from the wool.

From here, the scoured product is dried in a dryer consisting of a series of drums, somewhat in the manner of a clothes dryer. This process is critical in ensuring that the wool is dried enough to optimize the removal of vegetable matter during the next process of carding while at the same time retaining sufficient moisture to minimize static electricity build-up in subsequent processes. Carding uses rollers of varying sizes rotating and counter-rotating to "tease out" the wool fibers using teeth or pins on the carding rollers and eventually creates a continuous sliver of parallel fibers. Some of the carding rollers also help remove heavy clumps of vegetable matter by using beating blades on the wool sliver.

The carded sliver next passes through the process of 'gilling' and 'drafting' whereby the wool fibers are further straightened or separated into parallel strands through a succession of machines called gills, then drafted when rollers operating at different speeds transform the carded sliver into a much thinner and very uniform product. The wool is now ready for combing, which is the process of separating the long and very short fibers within the sliver, as well as removing all residual vegetable matter and aligning the wool fibers in as perfect a condition as possible. The final product is called wooltop and the quality of combing in presenting the best and most uniform product in terms of sliver weight, cleanliness and neps and pinpoints (small balls of entangled fibers) will be critical to the spinner in achieving quality and industrial efficiency in his operation.

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